5 Barbaric Psychiatric Treatments of the Past
- Hysteria Therapy
- Insulin Coma Therapy
Psychiatric treatments and the parent disciplines psychology and psychiatry are young fields. They were both born in an era in which punishment of the body was acceptable and even seen as beneficial for non-physical phenomena. While mortification of the flesh sounds like something that should be firmly situated in certain religious circles, it pervaded how physicians thought about mental health treatment. It, along with certain classical Greek philosophies, tainted the practice of psychiatry, marking the brief history of this field of medicine with its own dark veins.
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While a particular aspect of this treatment has been adapted for use today, the utterly cruel application of water to those suffering from mental difficulties has, thankfully, fallen out of fashion. Psychiatrists in the early 20th century believed water to be an active treatment medium because it could be heated or cooled to the desired temperature. The use of warm immersive baths used to treat insomnia in a gentle setting may not seem harmful, but forcible dunking of bound patients, high-pressure hot or cold "showers," and other archaic applications do indisputable harm.
Archaeological and historical records bear substantial evidence for this practice, although the motive for cutting away a portion of the skull varies across time and culture. There is some evidence in medical practice that a similar operation can relieve pressure in cases where the brain swells after trauma. However, that's not why quacks and individuals who styled themselves as psychiatrists practiced this procedure from the Middle Ages through the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the modern era, when it was performed in psychiatric contexts, the prevailing medical theories still used humor to describe ailments or states of health. Removal of parts of the skull was thought to allow ill humor to escape the body. This is not much different than the thought that such an operation would allow a demon possessing a person—a familiar concept to explain conditions such as epilepsy during the Middle Ages—to be driven from the body by prayer.
3. Hysteria Therapy
While Herodotus popularized the idea that women experiencing everything from social shyness to mental illness were suffering from a wandering uterus, the physicians and psychiatrists of the 19th century took the concept to all new and absurd heights. In Classical Greek theory, these women were exposed to noxious substances, the smells of which were thought to drive the rogue uterus back into place. He further asserted that the best cure for hysteria was pregnancy since apparently, the uterus was enraged or bored with its idleness. However, according to Psychology Today, psychotherapists of the Freudian persuasion adopted the idea and invented the world's first vibrators, with which they "treated" their hysterical patients. These implements were designed to save the cramped fingers of the doctors and take the place of laborious manual stimulation.
No matter how much sympathy historical relativists may have for Moniz' leukotomy procedure, both the procedure and its implements are barbaric. The operation was first performed in 1935 and is the premiere of the modern lobotomy. The concept is simple—drilling holes in a mentally disturbed patient's head, insert two eight-inch spikes or needles and stir. The result is an instantly quiet and calm patient. At the time, this procedure was hailed as the cutting edge of psychiatric medicine. However, it's now clear that scrambling the brain in this way produces apparent calmness in a portion of patients because it destroys a patient's ability to interact with the outside world and form meaningful social relationships. Thousands of individuals who suffered from depression, mania, social anxiety, and other treatable condition were given the operation each year through the mid-1950s in countries such as Great Britain and the United States of America.
5. Insulin Coma Therapy
In the 1930s, many in the medical community considered this horrific practice to be the gold standard in treating schizophrenia. Manfred Sakel developed the original therapeutic structure during his work at the Vienna University Neuropsychiatric Clinic. While the progress and spread of the labor-intensive, clinically unproven and scientifically untested practice was disrupted by the advent of WWII and a drastic sugar shortage, clinicians blithely resumed its use after the end of the war. It was not until 1957 that the concept was challenged, according to an article published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. A structured experiment was conducted and offered conclusive evidence that inducing a potentially fatal and often physically detrimental coma via hypoglycemia possessed no therapeutic value.
There are several different treatments in the history of the discipline that modern scrutiny and an insistence upon rigorous testing expose as horrifying quackery. While it would be a simple matter to use these examples to discount modern neuroscience and psychiatric treatments, it should be noted that such instances must be viewed in context, which often reveals human bias or incomplete understanding, not a failure of science itself.